The larger number of Marvell’s modern admirers, I believe, have come to his poems with the assumption that the relatively short, supposedly ‘private’ poem, uncommitted to cause or action, is the most desirable or highest kind of poetry. But a number of Marvell’s poems, may shock us with their kind of ‘privacy’. But if these poems are in one way more ‘private’ than anything we can easily imagine today, they also use the rhetorical devices of an age supremely conscious of the powers and problems of the social, and particularly the persuasive, uses of language. Recently the conventional opinion has been clear about the contrast; Marvell’s good poems were the ‘private’ ones, Marvell could even serve as the prime exemplary proof for the ‘cultural break’ the ‘dissociation of sensibility ‘ which set in at 1660; before that date, supposedly, Marvell wrote the poems which we all admire; afterwards, he was the victim of politics, satire and an age, when thought and ‘feelings’ were hopelessly split apart.
Marvell seems to have been a gentleman who for a time wrote a kind of poetry that we have come to admire greatly. Although he was, with Ben Johnson and John Milton, one of the most ‘literary’ poets of the century, unlike them he conceived of himself neither as a professional nor as a dedicated poet. When the inspiration or the occasion for a particular kind of verse was past, his choice seems to have been either to quit writing verse altogether or to turn to a new kind of poetry.Smoothness and polish might easily be preferred to roughness and ‘strength’. We can tell that Marvell’s practice differed from the normal responses of his age chiefly in agility and elegance.
The attempts to place Marvell in a specific ‘school’ of poetry have also occasionally misled or perplexed. A student who has learned that Marvell belongs to the ‘School of John Donne’ may be disconcerted when he discovers Marvell’s concern for euphony, his usual rejection of impatient or impassioned speakers, and his preference for simple metrical schemes and Johnsonian diction. Marvel delighted in considering the meanings of overtones of another poet’s phrases or images and in bending them to new and often surprising uses. When one comes to recognize some of the things Marvell took from Donne, Johnson, George Herbert, Crashaw, Dryden, and Milton. Marvell’s lines may come to seem strewn with words and phrases so redolent of other contexts that they should properly be printed in Italics. And this is the same poet whom T.S. Eliot called the most Latin of all seventeenth-century poets.
The poems are considered in terms of their general subjects. Many can be described as predominantly concerned with love, or religion, or politics. The most popular of Marvell’s poems today either clearly fit into one of the categories or mark the transitions from one to another.Frank Wranke has recently recently remarked that a large number of Marvell’s lines or poems are literally playful. T.S. Eliot’s memorable phrase about ‘a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace.’
The least and probably the most poorly read of Marvell’s poems today are the fully public ones which Marvell wrote for anonymous publication and with which he meant to influence public opinion. Marvell devoted his major energies to public matters-and numbers of people knew it.
Marvell used and mastered more than one style. When he wrote occasional poems, he was aware of a potential public audience and of immediate political possibilities. And he seems to have realized that political poems, like other poems, are less immediately effective and less ultimately interesting if the poet assumes that he is merely voicing common sentiment, formulated before his poem is written-or read.
Marvell and Milton
Marvell’s association with Milton had been long: he had admired and used Milton’s early verse soon after it was published; with the publication of Paradise Lost, Marvell may have recognized that, despite his use of Johnson’s lyrics in his earlier poems, Milton was the first major poet after Donne and Johnson who was not primarily an heir of either. If Milton had a single important English ancestor, it was, of course, Spenser.Marvell clearly recognized and admired the miracle of Paradise Lost, but except in a few lines, he did not imitate it. Perhaps he recognized that Milton’s combination of blank verse and high style, divorced from greatness of subject and greatness of spirit, was likely to result merely in windiness or bombast. And Marvell, ostentatiously staying with the couplets that had served him so well.